By now, we’ve all forgiven ourselves for turning off this year's Super Bowl early. If you recall, the real big draw that Sunday was President Obama’s interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
The topics parlayed between O’Reilly and President Obama are still stinging weeks later. As to be expected, a number of those topics were conservative favorites, such as the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the issues with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and the furor surrounding the IRS supposedly targeting conservative groups.
But this focus on fake scandals is nothing new when it comes to politics, especially in the age of “death panels” and “smoking guns”.
The Daily Show host Jon Stewart said it best: “While many of those issues have been thoroughly investigated on multiple occasions, it’s a big show…you gotta play the hits!”
And the hits keep coming. Over the past few weeks, three new instances of stretching the truth emerged. Two of them you’ve probably heard of; the third you might have trouble believing. All are bad news for the quality of our national discourse.
The CBO Report
Much of Washington was abuzz earlier this month when the new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report claimed the Affordable Care Act would cut the workforce by 2.3 million jobs by 2021. The report spawned the inevitable outraged headlines and tweets about CBO labeling Obamacare a “job-killer.”
The only problem: CBO didn’t say that.
What they did say isn’t actually new: The ACA will let people leave the workforce voluntarily because they no longer need to keep their job to get health insurance. The 2.3 million figure comes from the equivalent number of labor hours that will be lost by people leaving the workforce or choosing to work fewer hours. We are already seeing some anecdotal examples of this — in most cases, it’s a good thing.
Back in 2011, CBO projected the ACA would cut the workforce by an equivalent of 800,000 jobs. The sanctimonious Republican response was the same then, and it was equally wrong.
But conservatives weren’t swayed from seizing on this report as “proof” the law is bad news — and they got some help from the media. Obviously, this isn’t the first time the media got a story wrong. The difference is that news outlets issue corrections. You won’t see many corrections coming from Republican critics who recycle political scandals even after they’re debunked.
The Immigration Debate
One week after suggesting comprehensive immigration reform might be possible this year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) changed course, indicating opposition from House conservatives made passage too heavy a lift.
Boehner did not blame his caucus for this development. He blamed President Obama instead.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said during a news conference Thursday. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
In actuality, deportations have risen during Obama’s time in office, and the number of Border Patrol agents hit an all-time high of more than 21,000 in 2011. Net migration from Mexico fell to zero in 2012, partly because of a weak economy.
It’s likely Boehner’s course correction was a result of conservative groups pressuring Republicans to block any so-called “amnesty.” This tack fits into a broader GOP narrative that President Obama is usurping power by issuing executive orders, like raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. (We’ll come back to this later.)
There’s no question Obama serves as a convenient boogeyman among the GOP base, and using him as an excuse to shut down immigration reform makes sense politically, if not factually.
The Chain Email
Then there’s the mysterious chain email which earned Politifact’s “prestigious” Pants on Fire rating.
The email claims President Obama has issued 1,000-plus executive orders (try 168 as of January 2014), more than FDR’s 11 (he actually issued more than 3,500 in 12-plus years), and that some of those orders involve ordering the government to seize the media and mobilize civilians into government-led work brigades.
It isn’t clear who is responsible for the email, but like the immigration issue, it’s clearly designed to reinforce the idea that Obama is overstepping his bounds, and is possibly a worthy candidate for impeachment.
The Undisputed Truth
This illogical discourse goes beyond the simple idea that a president’s policies were the wrong choices — always a debate worth having. Instead, the debate becomes about legitimacy.
As noted earlier, these debates have already thrown immigration reform’s prospects into question. The fight over the health care law has claimed other victims, including an unrelated (and bipartisan) energy-efficiency bill. This lack of trust likely even contributed to the incredibly costly government shutdown.
Even in the best of circumstances, compromise is never easy. When there is a persistent view that the other side’s leader is lawless or illegitimate, that makes things even harder. There are enough important issues that need to be addressed; the last thing the country needs are parties that do not even trust each other.
This is not the first article bemoaning this trend, and it probably won’t be the last. This is going to continue until enough people decide they want it to stop.